I have a weakness for supernatural thrillers. In between bouts of William Faulkner and David Foster Wallace, there’s a part of me that still enjoys reading about humans and monsters slugging it out in an urban-noir setting. I’ve even written a few novels of my own in the genre.
For a Christian author who wants his/her faith to be reflected (however subtly) in such a work, one big question has to be tackled up-front: how many theological liberties will be taken in fleshing out any angels-and-demons conflict. If any sort of all-sovereign God is postulated in such a fictional work, there’s a risk of a literal deus ex machina plot problem (if God can simply wave His hand and solve everything Himself, why have a cast of human characters? or for that matter, why have a plot at all?)
There’s both an easy way and a far more difficult way to handle this: A) apply liberal doses of “God power” throughout the story; or B) attempt to devise theologically plausible reasons for divine nonintervention. (It’s probably fair to say that there’s an option C) – don’t even touch the subject – but that’s a bit of a copout.)
I think it’s fair to say that, in 99% of cases, selecting option A) makes for terrible, terrible books. Liberally invoking the “God fix” at every turn means that characters don’t have to develop or struggle. It completely defangs any actual conflict and turns the Almighty into little more than a superpower dispensary. In practice, this works something like this: “I prayed, and then God sent down a beam of light that smote down my enemy for me.”
When I pick up a novel, I want to read about realistic people, growing and facing real challenges. I want to root for my favorite good guys to destroy the villains (or for the antihero to come to terms with himself…while destroying the villains). Especially if there’s combat involved, I don’t want to read saccharine, ultra-sanitized prose populated by static characters. After all, the Bible is a pretty violent book, with a rather diverse cast. Furthermore, calling on God as a sort of Christianized “Force” ignores the complex realities of prayer and theodicy; in real life, prayers aren’t always answered instantly and in precisely the way we would like. It’s an awfully petty version of God that emerges from such a narrative choice.
To the topic at hand: Jerel Law’s Christian young-adult novel “Fire Prophet,” billed as “the first Christian answer to Percy Jackson and the Olympians.” (It’s worth noting up-front that Rick Riordan, author of the Percy Jackson books, is openly Christian; he writes darn good stories with positive moral messages, though they’re not explicitly religious in nature.)
The plot centers on Jonah Stone, a young teenager who discovers he is one-quarter angel and has special powers. He eventually ends up in “Angel School” where he and a suitably multiethnic group of other “quarterlings” learn to use their abilities. Et cetera, et cetera – if you’re even tangentially familiar with Harry Potter or one of its many imitators, you already have a pretty good idea of where this is going.
The book is little more than a poorly conceived ripoff of Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, and Bibleman. The book’s antagonists – supposedly intimidating hordes of fallen angels – go down faster than Imperial stormtroopers in a gunfight. At no point is a single major character ever in bodily or spiritual jeopardy. Law’s prose is serviceable – better than some of the self-published Kindle authors I’ve seen on Amazon – but this isn’t saying much.
Most problematically, literally none of the characters (this is no exaggeration) change or progress in the slightest. At the beginning of the book, protagonist Jonah is a cardboard cutout who prays a lot and has superpowers. That is the extent of Jonah’s development – we never have any insight into his motivations, personal struggles, or spiritual journey. Even Bryan Davis’ “Dragons In Our Midst” series, which went in disastrously bad directions after a promising start, succeeded in creating compelling characters. In a book meant to compete with some of the best YA fiction today, not creating a relatable protagonist is a cardinal failure.
Admittedly, “Fire Prophet” does have a few clever moments. Though the idea of “mythological/historical monsters rampaging around modern cities” is stolen wholesale from Percy Jackson et al., creatures like the spectral Canaanite warrior Sisera and demon lord Dagon are nice touches. There are also a couple of nicely cinematic supernatural-action sequences, but most showdowns or fights are over in seconds and require no serious expenditure of effort.
Some other reviewers will undoubtedly disagree with this analysis – and to be perfectly fair, “Fire Prophet” is a kids’ book with a simple storyline. But that doesn’t mean it needs to be this bad…nor does a book containing explicit Christianity necessarily have to fail. (And no, I’m not just going to invoke Narnia as the go-to example).
A couple of decades ago, Frank Peretti wrote a series of young-adult novels that coupled religious themes with great storytelling. The books were suspenseful, intense, and hugely memorable (I can still remember minute plot details, even though I haven’t touched them in years). Peretti, wisely, forced his characters to struggle and grow and make sacrifices to defeat various forms of supernatural evil. God’s providence was a behind-the-scenes element that never felt shoehorned in. His books are a model for what Christian YA fiction should be.
In short, “Fire Prophet” is not worthy of anyone’s time and money – whether Christian or not. There are many, many other books (both Christian and secular) that explore similar themes and do so with greater flair.
A barely serviceable YA tale that blatantly cribs from its far superior secular counterparts.
* I received this book free from Thomas Nelson Publishers as part of their BookSneeze.com book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”